Reading today’s newspapers or watching today’s TV news, most of us note an aura of divisiveness and discomfort that pervades our country—Urban vs. Rural, City vs. Suburb, Haves vs. Haven’ts, Immigrant vs. Native, Old vs. Young, Masked vs. Unmasked, and, simply, Us vs. Them. Whew! Game on, heavy duty stuff!
Time to break out the ukuleles!
Pardon me for wanting to lighten up! And, what better way than by musing about music from other, long gone (thankfully!) times of social turmoil. We need to be amused, not just bemused!
Anyway . . . Once upon a time in America the country was similarly divided and those divisions warped it in ways unforeseen. There was, however, a prevailing presence–a saving grace, as it were–of music in the parlor, on the stage, on the radio, in the streets, and in the pubs and clubs of the day. This, of course, includes our favorite little musical instrument–the ukulele.
So, let me dwell on a particular era of the American past, and one that is rich with musical lore—the once-upon-us, now-long-gone era of “PROHIBITION.”
As a bit of background for those of you not as long in the tooth as I, Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Interesting, though, it was not a ban on consumption. Go figure! It lasted from 1920 to 1933 and, in the dialect of the day, it was “No booze fer youse.”
(Note: I was born a few years after Prohibition ended but one of my grandfathers was a union bartender, the other carried a beer bucket with him into the coal mines every day–give’s me some cred here!)
Well-meaning Prohibitionists of the time—so-called “drys”—first attempted to end the trade in alcoholic beverages during the late 1800s. Those who espoused this “temperance” movement aimed to heal what they saw as an ill society beset by alcohol-related problems such as alcoholism, family neglect, paychecks “thrown away,” self-inflicted bodily harm, and saloon-based political corruption.
Needless to say, a lot of the music of the era reflected this.
Here’s a version of this one from 1925. Click or tap on the next image to listen to this poignant tale of woe.
Another poignant one.
And then, a real topper from a child’s point of view.
You can listen to this one. Click or tap on the next image to hear a British (no Prohibition there, however) version.
The movement was taken up by social progressives and gained a noisy, active national grassroots base through the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the “WCTU.” To their credit, these women also played a major role in the Womens’ Suffrage movement. But, that’s a musical tale for another time.
They, needless to say, had their share of sheet music too.
This might not be quite the same song but it’s close enough, and on a ukulele to boot! Click or tap on the next image to hear this one.
How about a medly of good old temperance songs! Click or tap on the next image for a dry, dry treat.
Needless to say, opposition to the erstwhile efforts of the “drys” mushroomed as “wets” mobilized. These were supporters from ranging from those Martini-sipping, cosmopolitan city dwellers to the Irish, German, Italian, and other not-so-posh ethnic communities whose life styles and livelihoods were grounded in alcohol production, distribution, and consumption.
Songs of the day reflected this bleak (to many) situation.
Click or tap on the next image for a look at the words and music for this one and to have a listen.
Still, the brewing, wine making, and distilling industries were nailed shut by a succession of conservative state legislatures, and Prohibition became the law of the land. Alcohol consumption ended (Ha!) nationwide under the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified by 46 of 48 states—all but our next door neighbors Connecticut and Rhode Island!
Enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, set down the rules for enforcing the federal ban
and defined the types of intoxicating or “adult” beverages that were prohibited—except of course for medicinal purposes, only by a doctor’s prescription.
Of course, a song came out of this as folks flocked to their physicians with ailments only alleviated by, so they said, alcohol. And, many docs winked and complied.
As hoarded supplies ran out, however, criminal gangs and syndicates quickly gained control of the beer and liquor supply and distribution networks in many cities—“bootlegging,” and “speakeasies” were born and the 1920s began their roar.
Rumrunners went into business.
Folks made their own “bathtub gin” with grain alcohol and who knows whatever flavorings. Moviegoers and speakeasy patrons loved it, or at least tolerated it–no matter what it tasted like. It was booze!
As did, I’m sure, ukulele players!
And, needless to say, folks were sad, Sad, SAD!
Here’s a country version of what became a jazz standard. Tap or click on the next image for a Jimmie Roger’s style interpretation. Four strings but not a uke. Sorry.
Here’s a song from the pulpit, no less.
This is a novelty tune that is a bit of a different take on Prohibition. Tap or click on the next image to listen and learn. Amen!
Other tunes, and laments, followed.
Tap or click on the next image to hear this whistling tune.
Click or tap on the next image to hear the original version of this one.
But, by the late 1920s, a new opposition to Prohibition had mobilized nationwide. Critics attacked the prohibition policy as causing crime, lowering local revenues, and imposing “rural” religious values on “urban” America.
And so, gentle readers, Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. To date, this is the only time in American history in which a constitutional amendment was passed for the purpose of repealing another.
So much for “dry” (ahem) history! On to the tunes.
The Prohibition Era paralleled the jazz and ragtime ages of the “Roaring Twenties.” The music embraced by the flappers and their shieks and their wide-open consumption of those illegal products of grape and grain.
Needless to say, the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley had a way of distilling (ahem, again) all of this into the music of the day. And, of course, most of the songs had ukulele chords printed right in.
Here’s a contemporary take on this old chestnut. Click or tap on the next image.
Here’s an up-to-date version of this ragtime tune. Click or tap to join in.
Here’s the original version of this peppy, but sad take on Prohibition. Click or tap on the next image just for fun.
And, of course, there were a lot of thirsty folks who looked across borders to Canada or even New Jersey (they sold so-called “near-beer” there) for refreshment.
Here’s a lively foxtrot version of this one. Click or tap on the next image to take a ride on his train.
Most of these tunes fell into the comic or novelty category as folks around the country—and a lot of law enforcement types–winked at the law as they blew the foam off their beer or sipped their bootleg booze out of teacups.
Needless to say, trouble was fermenting (ahem, again and again), but America survived as the country transitioned through Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover on to Roosevelt—sad days then to happy days again!
Well, I could go on and on with tunes from the Prohibition era as there seems to be a lot of them out there–way too many, probably. Anyway, here’s one to end on–a great ukulele version of this one!
Click or tap on the next image to help me down the road a bit!
Stay safe, say distanced, stay strumming, and STAY TUNED! And Remember,
Don’t believe everything you hear, particularly from a Ukulele Player!